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Homes for Londoners: Vote-winner or too little too late?

26/05/15
Homes for Londoners: Vote-winner or too little too late?
Increasingly, London’s housing crisis seems like an insurmountable challenge.

The city is thought to need around 50,000 new homes annually to keep pace with the growing population, which has reached its highest level of 8.6 million people. Yet fewer than 20,000 homes were built in the capital last year. What is more, spiraling rents render the concept of affordable housing a contradiction in terms. Unsurprisingly, a recent poll found that housing is now the biggest concern for Londoners.

It is within this daunting context that candidates have begun to throw their hats in to the ring to become London’s next mayor. As the race hots up, every candidate will surely need to provide clear answers on what will inevitably be a central issue of the campaign.

Tessa Jowell threw down the gauntlet this week, as she unveiled her ambitious plan to create a new house building body for London. Speaking at a community centre in her former constituency, Ms. Jowell introduced plans to create a new mayoral agency, a “Transport for London, for housing”. Homes for Londoners will act as a developer, providing affordable housing and introducing real competition to the market. The policy could create more than 2,000 affordable homes each year over the next 20 years, Ms. Jowell has said.

On the issue of finding land for development, Homes for Londoners proposes to use land owned by the mayor and Transport for London. This brownfield land, of which TfL owns 5,700 acres, is surplus and underused. Whilst this facet of the policy is not new (other candidates, for example the Conservative candidate Stephen Greenhalgh, have espoused a similar approach) it does provide a credible solution to one of the central issues of the housing crisis.

The policy is by no means perfect. Questions have already arisen over TfL’s response, given the transport body’s ambitions to use the same land for high-end housing developments, netting TfL between £1.1bn and £3.4bn over the next decade.

Moreover, the policy still does not address the fundamental shortfall in housing numbers. While 2,000 affordable homes a year is an important offering that should not be belittled, it is unfortunately a drop in the ocean of what is required.

Yet despite these shortcomings, the speech on Tuesday was an important moment in the difficult discussion about how Londoners are to be housed.

As the runaway favourite to be Labour candidate, and the bookmakers’ current favourite to win the contest overall, Ms. Jowell’s pledge holds a lot of weight. By placing the issue of housing front and centre she has set a clear agenda for the mayoral race, ensuring that other candidates, both in and outside her party, will need to respond with similarly credible and practical policies.

Moreover, it is heartening to see genuinely new ideas being introduced to a debate which is often in danger of becoming stagnant. “It is not enough for the mayor to exhort others to build homes. We’ve tried that – it hasn’t worked. The next mayor needs to take the lead”, Ms. Jowell argued on Tuesday. Indeed the need for new ideas and leadership in this arena has never been greater, and Homes for Londoners is a great demonstration of government leading by example.

Building new homes is only one aspect of the complex and often overwhelming housing debate. Ms Jowell may not have the panacea for London’s housing crisis but she brings confidence and a new approach to an old problem which matters to London’s voters. The Labour party at large, struggling to redefine itself in defeat, should take note.

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